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Book Review

Harrison Birtwistle's Operas and Music Theatre

Harrison Birtwistle's Operas and Music Theatre by Beard

Music Since 1900 series

David Beard
Cambridge University Press, 2012 pp xvii + 469
ISBN-10: 0521895340
ISBN-13: 978-0521895347
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Like several compatriots of his generation, Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934) is not so well known outside Britain as he deserves to be. Two prominent characteristics of his music are lyricism and drama. Indeed, Birtwistle has concentrated on works for the stage throughout his career. Now Cambridge University Press has published a full length study of all the composer's works for the stage. It's pleasingly thorough and comprehensive at nearly 450 substantive pages. And extremely informative and perceptive.

David Beard, its author, is Senior Lecturer in music at Cardiff University in Wales. He is especially well-placed to examine Birtwistle, having earned his DPhil at Oxford on the (early instrumental music of the) composer. Beard has contributed to relevant journals and written (concert and CD notes) on contemporary music – including that of Peter Maxwell Davies, a fellow member of the mid-C20th Manchester school of composers, to which Birtwistle nominally belongs.

Harrison Birtwistle's Operas and Music Theatre can certainly be considered the definitive study of its subject for its thoroughness, for the comprehensive nature of what's covered, and for the high production standards of the book. For instance, the musical examples are clearer than might be expected given Birtwistle's often complex and innovative scoring. Similarly, the multiplicity of well-annotated tables and other illustrative material adds to the book's appeal and value. It can be recommended without reservation to all lovers of contemporary music, music theatre and of Birtwistle and his generation in particular.

Beard first considers how and why Birtwistle came to be drawn to the theatre as a vehicle for his distinctive and distinctively beautiful modes of expression – really in the period of Pantomime, written when the composer was only 11, to Down by the Greenwood Side, from the late 1960s. Beard uses this chapter to explain Birtwistle's musical and dramatic aesthetic. His priorities are clear; and these are repeatedly and painstakingly explained and illustrated throughout the book.

In the first place, Birtwistle doesn't "set" a libretto in the conventional sense. Rather, he works with topics, themes, topoi. These (already) mirror his musical priorities. He then constructs entities which themselves reflect and embody the very act of blending them; of matching music to idea, word. Thus all visual, spatial, choreographically concerns or threads are not drawn on gratuitously. Still less are they pressed into service in the interests of embellishing an opera or piece of musical theatre. Rather, such an idea as mythical identity, for example, is explored in a work like The Mask of Orpheus.

Secondly, narrative and archetypes (not necessarily human) combine into and for something that is compelling by the very act of combining them in a dramatic way: Yan Tan Tethera handles landscape, for example. Whereas British pastoral composers like Vaughan Williams evoked landscape, Birtwistle brings its essence alive in new ways. This tends to make for a new whole, a fresh and compelling holistic theatrical experience; and one that has to be understood "in the round". Harrison Birtwistle's Operas and Music Theatre is particularly strong in aiding our understanding of this topic.

Thirdly, Birtwistle seems to hang raw drama up by its neck, then to jab and spar with it. This shows that drama in a post-Verdi sense can still sustain (even strengthen) its musico-theatrical integrity and identity. Punch and Judy exemplifies this relief (perhaps in both senses of the word) and vibrancy.

Next, Birtwistle's theatre is – to use his word – "emblematic". By this he means that abstraction (of concepts) takes precedence over literal meaning and narrative. Gawain is one of his works that shows this. Plot as a linear unfolding is less prominent, less important even, than is the situation (as described by Martin Esslin in his allusion to the Theatre of the Absurd).

Lastly, emotion for Birtwistle is as interesting as – if not more so than – the conventions of operatic dialog in the ways that we might expect English twentieth century opera to have evolved after Britten. And it's emotion that is presented in visually metaphorical terms… The Second Mrs Kong exemplifies this aspect of the composer's ethos and aesthetic.

Seven substantial, readable and amply-illustrated chapters follow Beard's overview. They deal – in turn – with Punch and Judy (1967); The Mask of Orpheus (1984); Yan Tan Tethera (1986); Gawain (1990); The Second Mrs Kong (1994); The Last Supper (2000) and The Minotaur (2008) as well as Bow Down (1977), The Io Passion (2004) and The Corridor (2009). The first thing that is likely to strike you about Beard's superb exposition, commentary and analysis is the sheer variety of concerns, compositional and performance problems and non-musical entities which Birtwistle has successfully dealt with in his more than 60 years as a composer for the stage.

Birtwistle has written for as few as two singers (in The Corridor); and for large orchestras as well as conventional chamber forces. And, despite the composer's preoccupation with myth, the variety of themes and subjects is notable. For all that Greek and mediaeval myth figures prominently in Birtwistle's world, equally signifiant is the way in which Birtwistle reflects contemporary purely theatrical thought in his work. Beard examines how dramatists like Artaud influenced the composer with his insistence on anti-naturalist theatre… masks, mime, (stylized) gesture, non-linear narrative, framing and other distancing effects as well as ritual.

Harrison Birtwistle's Operas and Music Theatre is well-indexed, has useful running footnotes and a pleasingly extensive general bibliography. Each chapter is nicely subdivided into sensible relevant sub-sections – between just a couple and a dozen. Synopses of the works are given. Compositional, literary and staging issues are all clearly set out. The intimately musical nature, context and particularities of each are dealt with at just the right length. Although understanding of the technical issues is all but essential in these sections, such work will be repaid: fully 20 pages are devoted to rhythm and pitch in The Mask of Orpheus, for instance; so such understanding of these schemes and innovation as is afforded by Harrison Birtwistle's Operas and Music Theatre is essential to understanding how Birtwistle's (theatre) music works at all.

Beard also situates and contextualizes those dramatists, artists and other musicians who have influenced and worked with Birtwistle. Above all, he provides – both for individual, and collectively for the entire corpus of the composer's stage works right up to 2008 (The Minotaur) – extremely thorough, comprehensive and admirably approachable and digestible background, commentary and interpretative discussion, conclusion and gloss on this important area of this major composer's work.

Significantly, too, Beard provides – both explicitly as the chapters go on, and implicitly thanks to his thoroughness of description and analysis – a real sense of the development in Birtwistle's thought and compositional methods and musical outcomes over the 63 years throughout which he has been thinking about the stage and music. Interestingly, these 63 years correspond exactly to the entire life of arguably Britain's most prominent composer of music for the stage, Benjamin Britten. Even were Harrison Birtwistle's Operas and Music Theatre not so well written by such a perceptive and well-qualified author as David Beard, it would be a definitive study. Since it is, the book can be unreservedly recommended for anyone interested in this corner of contemporary music: they cannot but come away with a greatly enhanced understanding of how Birtwistle's music works. For enthusiasts of Birtwistle's original and beautiful musical world it's essential.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Sealey.